Twenty-one dead, scenes of chaos and a minister who calls for murder: the Pakistani government has paid a high price for its very electoral support for the mobilization against the Islamophobic film, at the risk of boosting extremism in a country already unstable.
On Saturday, the day after violent demonstrations denouncing “The innocence of Muslims”, by far the most deadly in the Muslim world, the Pakistani Minister of Railways, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, dropped a small bombshell promising $100,000 to anyone who kills American film director.
This bounty recalled another, which has remained in the eyes of the West as one of the most famous symbols of Islamic fundamentalism: the fatwa launched in 1989 by Iran against the writer Salman Rushdie, enjoining Muslims to kill the author of the Satanic Verses, deemed blasphemous against Islam.
The Pakistani government hastened on Sunday to distance itself from Mr. Bilour’s announcement. “We totally dissociate ourselves from it,” a spokesman for Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf told AFP.
Islamabad did not need this new affair, already under fire for its inability to prevent violence on Friday during a mobilization initiated by the Islamist parties but which it had supported by decreeing a public holiday to allow the population to participate.
In the end, the “Day of the Prophet’s love” left 21 dead, more than 200 injured and gave rise to scenes of chaos in Islamabad, Karachi (south) and Peshawar (north-west). And if this anti-American mobilization remained limited (45,000 people in the main cities, for a country of 180 million), the very visible extremists made their voices heard there.
“The government miscalculated and played badly. It thought the protests would be peaceful. But it underestimated the anger fueled by both anti-American sentiment and the economic crisis,” said Najam Sethi, editor of the daily in English Daily Times.
“He should have spoken initially with the religious parties, allowing them to demonstrate at certain times in parks,” he continues.
The demonstrators – led by activists from various parties, extremist groups and students from Koranic schools – instead took to the streets and ended up confronting the police, especially as they approached the American consulates. .
“As usual, the government played with fire with the Islamist parties, and it lost,” said political analyst Hasan Askari. “By joining them, he allowed them to do what they wanted,” he regrets.
The power is accused of having done the bare minimum by protecting only the embassies of its Western donors in Islamabad. Leaving Peshawar or Karachi at the mercy of extremists, who “wanted violence, because each time it weakens the state”, notes Mr. Sethi.
Sunday, while the mobilization was running out of steam, the English daily The News retained a “bitter lesson” from this Friday when “extremism prevailed and the state was powerless and complicit in its own destruction”.
Like all other Pakistani parties, the ruling People’s Party (PPP) and its allies have the general elections in early 2013 in sight and do not want to risk offending the influential religious parties too much, in a country that has continued to radicalize for 30 years, notes Najam Sethi.
Ditto for the bounty on the head of the director of the Islamophobic film. “It shows that even officials considered moderate and secular are using Islam for local political purposes,” says analyst Rasul Bash Rais.
In his very conservative northwestern region, a stronghold of Al-Qaeda-allied Taliban fundamentalists and where anti-American sentiment is very strong, Minister Ghulam Ahmed Bilour’s party, the Awami National Party (ANP), is more than never under pressure from religious parties.
Mr. Bilour thus tries to show that the secular ANP has nothing to envy them in terms of radicality, explains Mr. Askari.
But the bet is also risky. “It’s typical of the local mentality, but it will ultimately stir up religious fanaticism and may in the long term threaten internal stability,” Rais said.
“Bilour’s statement is very embarrassing for Pakistan, especially internationally. It shows that extremist thinking pervades even the government,” Askari said. And this while President Asif Ali Zardari must speak on Tuesday before the General Assembly of the United Nations.